The cavernous Imam Khomeini airport seemed almost deserted. I disembarked from the plane, retrieved my bag and passed through customs control without incident. But I had a lingering doubt in my mind — would there be someone to meet me at the airport? I had been told by the astronomer who had invited me that there would, but the secretary who booked my flight never mentioned this to me. There would be someone there, right? I had no map; “Google maps” for Tehran shows the intricate, sprawling mess of Tehrani streets as a single crossroads. No data.
In the end I need not have worried. As soon I left the baggage area I was met by a smiling pot-bellied man holding up a big card with ‘Dr. McCracken’ written on it in 40-point type. This was my driver to the institute. Hello welcome! Where are you from? Well, I am from Ireland, but I live in Paris. Ireland! I worked in England for two months, in London, with my brother. (We were walking down the echoing empty halls of IKA. We took the lift. My driver talking into his mobile phone. He passes me his mobile phone.) Here is my brother, Amir, he says, I speak to the voice on the telephone: Hello! How are you? Are you in London? No, I am in Tehran. We can meet! My brother will give you my number, he says. Nice to speak to you, I reply. Thank you! I hand back the mobile phone. These people like to speak — and to speak to foreigners!
In the taxi, we rolled through a maze of empty roads and autoroutes in the middle of what as far as I could tell was open desert. Through the window, I saw a lone planet and the moon’s pale disk low on the horizon following our taxi faithfully towards the city. It was around ten o’clock in the evening.
By ten thirty, soon after I had seen the first few buildings of Tehran, we had stopped: gridlock. Our taxi idled in heavy fumes of very incompletely combusted petroleum products, and I reluctantly rolled up my window, because the night air was pleasantly warm. I was beginning to get an inkling of Tehrani traffic. Beyond the cars I could see a maze of buildings most of which seemed to have been built in the last fifty years or so, but even so there was still that wonderful feeling of strangeness that always comes after an aeroplane flight to a country you have never been to before. In only five hours, everything changes.
After another half an hour or so, a gleaming, glittering tower appeared on the horizon. From a disk near the gracefully tapering peak needles of light shone and flickered. Was this the Iranian Tour Eiffel? My taxi driver became more and more exited. Very nice, very nice, beautiful, he muttered to himself repeatedly under his breath, all the while craning his neck to see the tower, like an excited child approaching the north pole just before Christmas. There is a very big party there tonight, he told me. Tonight is opening night. Then I realised we were actually driving right towards the tower. We passed the security barrier, drove to the foot of this immense luminous tower. Here is my brother! my driver exclaimed. I shook hands with small man in a dark suit. Hello! I said, Nice to meet you. I won’t take up your time, he told me. Welcome. If you need to contact me, here is my card. Have you eaten? He will take you to a restaurant. I thanked him, but I wanted to see my bed before my dinner. And we left the tower, and in an another half an hour I had arrived at the IPM.